VOTE FOR NEVADA
MIGHT the Republicans seize the Senate from the Democrats in November’s mid-term elections? It looks a tremendously long shot; at present the Democrats control 59 of the 100 seats, and even the most optimistic list of probable and possible pick-ups sees the Republicans adding at most only eight of the ten seats they would need for control. A 50-50 split would favour the Democrats, because in that case the vice-president, Joe Biden, would hold a casting vote states the Economist.
But the Republicans are hoping to get most of the way there; and they are hoping, above all, to inflict a deep humiliation on the Democrats by toppling one of the chief architects of Barack Obama’s proud victory in reforming health care. Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate’s Democrats, makes up, along with Mr Obama himself and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, the three-headed leadership of the Democrats in Washington. And he faces the battle of his life as he seeks a fifth six-year Senate term.
All the opinion polls suggest that Mr Reid is in deep trouble in his home state of Nevada. Granted, the western desert state has not exactly been besieged by the pollsters. But Pollster.com, a leading psephological website, lists no fewer than 12 polls so far this year in which voters were asked to choose between Mr Reid and his most probable Republican challenger, Sue Lowden. (The Nevada primaries are not until June 8th, but most analysts reckon Mrs Lowden is a shoo-in, while Mr Reid is so far running unopposed.) Every one of them gave Mrs Lowden the edge, mostly by double digits. Realclearpolitics.com says its weighted average (which emphasises the most recent results) has Mrs Lowden up by 11 percentage points.
Of course, it is still early days. Mr Reid, most obviously, has not yet started to spend much of the gigantic war-chest he has assembled. This amounts already to over $9m, and David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, reckons that by the time of the election Mr Reid will have been able to count on as much as $25m or so, thanks to his ability to raise money on a national scale.
Unlike Mrs Lowden, he will not have to spend any of it fending off a primary challenger from his own party. Mrs Lowden is up against Danny Tarkanian, a former basketball star who is getting a lot of backing from Nevada’s “tea-party” conservatives. Since there are only 2.6m people in Nevada, and they are overwhelmingly concentrated in and around Las Vegas, Mr Reid’s $25m will go a long way.
Mrs Lowden, by contrast, needs to spend a lot of money that she does not have just getting herself known. She is not exactly a nonentity, having served as a state senator for the Clark County area (which includes the Las Vegas Strip, with most of the big casinos and hotels) in the 1990s. She was once a Miss America runner-up, and is now a fairly prominent businesswoman in the gaming world. But she obviously cannot compete with Mr Reid on name recognition.
Recognition, though, for what? The Republicans’ hopes rest on blaming Mr Reid for failing to help Nevada dig its way out of the mess it is in. Apart from Michigan, home to Detroit’s big three carmakers, no state has been so hard hit by the recession. Nevada’s unemployment rate is running at 13.4%, against a national average of 9.7%, and you only need to walk the length of the Las Vegas Strip to see why.
The giant steel skeletons of mothballed megahotels and luxury condominium towers blight one of the world’s most famous skylines, testimony to the transmutation of the most spectacular boom in the gambling city’s history into its most painful bust. The north end of the strip, where work on the Echelon and the Fontainebleau hotels has halted, feels especially desolate, and casts a pall of gloom around other nearby properties.
For a state whose prosperity has been built on construction and tourism, the downturn has been savage. Hotel-occupancy rates are running at just over 80%, which sounds good until you realise that in 2007, the last year before the recession started to hit, they averaged over 90%. And in 2007, the average room rate was around $130; now it is running at under $90, as hotels have slashed their rates to keep business moving. About the only bright spot comes from the gold industry; Nevada is one of the world’s largest producers, and gold has been trading at record highs. Unfortunately for the state’s finances, which involve a budget gap of close to $1 billion, state law exempts mines from almost any taxes.
Is it fair to blame Mr Reid for any of this? The unrestrained boom that led to the bust happened during the Bush years, of course; but Mr Reid does, oddly enough, stand guilty of having failed to bring much in the way of bacon home from Washington now that help is sorely needed. Nevada gets less money per inhabitant from the federal government than any state bar Utah. Robert Uithoven, who is advising Mrs Lowden, notes that it gets only about 65 cents back for every dollar it sends to Washington in the form of federal taxes. In part, this is because Nevada is a lean state, and does not like putting up the matching funds many federal programmes require.
Mr Obama is doing his bit to help. In February Mr Reid was able to boast that he had helped persuade the administration to stop a deeply unpopular proposed nuclear-waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada before it has received even a single barrel of spent fuel. But when people are suffering, they tend to blame incumbents. And they don’t come much more incumbent than Mr Reid.